Saturday, January 30, 2010

The top 10 albums of 2009: No. 6

Summer of Hate

When I write poetry, I most commonly do it as a form of exorcism. I have feelings I need to vent, whether frightful or painful or thoughtful, and writing them down allows me to process them, or to make sense of them, or to move past them. This has the side benefit of allowing me to create something out of a raw experience. Sometimes I end up with something beautiful, even if all I started out with was something troubling.

I suspect musicians do this, too. Certainly not all the time, but it's wonderful when their irrepressible impulse to share love or humor or angst or despair culminates in a great piece of music. Think of all the breakups and setbacks and breakthroughs they survived or overcame or championed. And it might never have been, had they chose to, say, go watch TV.

Crocodiles, a band from San Diego, have funneled their throbbing temples and clenched teeth and aching hearts and wistful stares into a 34-minute nerve net of emotion. Merging tremeloed guitar with drum programming and '60s pop sensibility, Brandon Welchez and Charles Rowell capture the tender as well as the brutal.

Some tracks spurt confrontational energy. "Refuse Angels" lashes out with rapid-fire rimshots. "Flash of Light," which begins with swing and swagger, disintegrates into a full minute of caustic, repellent shooshing effects, like an aural strobe gone haywire. In the latter song, Welchez sings, "Tonight I'm gonna set my house on fire. ... Gonna rewrite my life."

The title track and "I Wanna Kill" would seem similarly inclined, although "I Wanna Kill" displays a gallows humor. Featuring a riff that could have been cribbed from The Crystals' "Then He Kissed Me," the song links a man's meager beginnings to his present frustration. It's the poppiest song on the album, with a back-and-forth chorus that includes "all the kids sing swan songs / all the kids sing along with me." This is somewhat more disturbing when you take into account that Welchez is a teacher by day.

Often, the message might be one of struggle, but the mood is anything but oppressive. "Sleeping With the Lord" assembles majestic vibratoed synths, almost like a take on Vangelis' classic theme "Chariots of Fire."

The CD, containing no liner notes, is scrawled "lovingly dedicated to Willy Graves." Graves was their bassist in a previous band, The Plot to Blow Up the Eiffel Tower. He died in autumn 2008 at the age of 28. So it's reasonable to assume his passing informed or influenced the tone of at least some these songs. Death and the afterlife is a recurring theme, with religious imagery popping up in several songs.

Summer of Hate has many highlights, but "Here Comes the Sky" is something extra special. Rowell's tremolo really shines here, shimmering amid a wavering synth that flows over it like an aura. There's something crushing about this track's tenderness, in the same way that some of Brian Wilson's songs go for that lump in your throat. Welchez tells us that his love has departed --- nothing special there --- but when he confesses, "In your absence, my heart's overflowed," it's such a powerful and unusual statement. He's not mad at her (or him, I suppose, although he equates her/him to a rose, which is a pretty strong feminine symbol); he actually has so much in his heart that it pours out. Continuing the metaphor, he says, together, they could grow to the sky, "where the weeds who are after us dry up and die."

It's so fanciful, so preposterous: a garden in the sky! And yet he's so unfaltering in his delivery, there's no denying that this is a deep avowal. Core-deep. It's a hope that we know is a dream. An impossible dream.

And Rowell's guitar gently weeps.

The top 10 albums of 2009: No. 7

The Raveonettes
In and Out of Control


Read my review of In and Out of Control here.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The top 10 albums of 2009: No. 8

Mulatu Astatke

and the Heliocentrics

Inspiration Information, Vol. 3

Contrary to what you might expect from the title, this is the first album made by Mulatu Astatke and the Heliocentrics. Together, that is. He's an Ethiopian jazz master, and they're a young U.K. band with worldly tastes (which is to say that their talents encompass instruments beyond the standard, Anglo-centric array of guitar, bass, drums, piano and keyboard). Their pairing was facilitated by the Strut record label of London for its Inspiration Information series, an influential-veteran-meets-hotshot-newcomer arrangement.

The two have chemistry, for sure. Ghostly Moog whines in "Dewel" give way to a chorus of horns, the sax, trumpet and trombone pattering in common conversation. Waiting in the bass groove, Astatke emerges with twinkles of vibraphone. Then the horns chatter anew.

The bulk of the songs were composed by Heliocentrics members, who number Malcolm Catto (drums), Jake Ferguson (bass), Oliver Parfitt (keys and synths), Adrian Owusu (guitar), Jack Yglesias (flute and percussion), Tom Hodges (theremin and saw), Dan Keane (cello), Kat Arney (harp), James Arben (clarinet and sax), Shabaka Hutchings (tenor sax) and James Allsop (bass clarinet). It's a full house.

Mulatu Astatke (piano, percussion) seems more mentor than bandleader here, although the tracks are bent toward traditional Ethiopian arrangements rather than new age eclecticism. Some guest players bring in washint, krar, begena and masenqo, instruments little-heard in Western music. Dawit Gebreab plays washint on "An Epic Story," the flute tones offset against a synth wind. It would seem befit for a warrior, one surveying his future kingdom from atop a bluff, perhaps at the cusp of daybreak.

The players save the best for last, though. "Anglo Ethio Suite" unfolds with suspense, a deliberately paced composition with a solemn and recurring cello theme. Malcolm Catto's kit skittering opens the piece, and Kat Arney dusts the scene with harp before Jake Ferguson's combo of bass and begena establishes the hypnotic groove. Astatke, at the piano, darts out, then retreats. Dan Keane's thin, high strings squeak out, and from there the track narrows in on cello and flute, as if the two are trapped in the face of impending tumult. The strings worry and scurry, then scrabble feverishly. A clarinet squeals. The end is near. Literally.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The top 10 albums of 2009: No. 9

Crack the Skye

With Crack the Skye, Mastodon have charged into the realm of accessibility. Sung vocals, avoided by some metalheads like a strain of the pox, are in steady supply here. Throughout, the Atlanta metal quartet's musicianship remains enviable: They tear through savage riffs and runs, pulling tempo change-ups on a dime, an equilibrium of ferocity and control. Sabbath would be proud.

Read my review of Crack the Skye here.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The top 10 albums of 2009: No. 10

The Bird and the Bee
Ray Guns Are Not
Just the Future

Just to be sure, this is not a children's album. And yet it's uncanny how Ray Guns could fit the form, so gentle and good-natured and parental. Despite what Inara George (the Bird) twitters on "What's in the Middle" --- "If you say it all the time, a dirty word will get a cleaning" --- you won't find any cursing here. That's a bit of a change from The Bird and the Bee's debut full-length (The Bird and the Bee, 2007), which included their buzzed-about track "F*cking Boyfriend," complete with a coy little asterisk. (The song was later picked up for the "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" soundtrack.) Of course, their profanity was never profuse or controversial by rock 'n' roll standards; "tame" would be more precise. These days, however, everything comes kissed with congeniality. For instance, when George chides a scoundrely beau, she says, "You're a cad" --- even though the tongues of most would be more likely to say, "You're an asshole."

Greg Kurstin (the Bee) outfits the tale with an accordion for the rogue --- or rapscallion, by the Gallic air of the wheeze --- along with a flouncy beat and banana peel sound effect. The latter in particular aims to conjure comical high jinks. The combination strays close to cheesy, but it's endearing in the context of the album.

Plus, who could predict the poignant performance that follows? "Witch" is a Bond-theme doppelgänger about a femme fatale realizing her powers have fizzled. George's vocal performance is remarkable for the vulnerability it communicates. Here a temptress falls in love and essentially has the spell turned on her. "How could I haunt you," she sings, "keep you close / when you can see the seams, the fraying of my dress? / I am defenseless."

Just as effective, but back on the carefree side of things, is "Diamond Dave," a re-examination of her schoolgirl crush on the flashy, hedonistic lead singer of Van Halen, David Lee Roth. She concludes, "No one can hold a candle," and she dovetails that with a revelation of her continued attraction: "I still carry such a flame." The song's bleeps and bloops create a carnival atmosphere, joining prancing drums and nicely timed chimes. Strings flit like nylon cords zipping from an invisible pulley.

Ray Guns Are Not Just the Future makes a case for Kurstin being the Willy Wonka of effects. He's quick to include a whimsical keyboard flourish, whether it's the "ooo" pulse on "Ray Gun" or the hammered dulcimer on "My Love" or the accordion on "You're a Cad."

At least some of it is motivated by humor. "Phil" is a wink: The song, just 10 seconds long, is simply a drum fill, which serves as an intro to "Polite Dance Song," itself a lark. "Polite Dance Song" pokes fun at automatic rock-show requests --- "Put your hands in the air," "Give it up," "Clap your hands" and so on --- and it does this by phrasing them to be excessively gracious, becoming sillier as the requests get randier. Of course, the album as a whole is exceedingly polite, so "Polite Dance Song" is also a self-parody, in a way.

Humor and whimsy tend to be more common in children's music, not because children don't suffer, too, but because ... well, there could be a lot of reasons. The rugrats aren't out there cutting records and commiserating with their peers over spilled milk and gas pains. And parents are the ones buying the music, so it's natural that they'd want their kids to laugh rather than cry. (If your kids enjoy Mudhoney's "Touch Me I'm Sick," maybe they'll grow up to be mentally disturbed. Then again, maybe they just dig rock music.)

In the end, perhaps the Bird and the Bee's tender turn was prophetic. After all, Inara George is pregnant now.